Website lifts 65.801 deceased people out of anonymity.

Hart Island

The Hart Island Project lifts people buried on Hart Island out of anonymity. Studio Airport and Webmine worked together on, a website where relatives are able to find information and leave stories.

Burial record with a story and navigating to a selected plot

On Hart Island lies the biggest tax funded cemetery in the world. On this 101 hectares island near New York there have been buried more than a million people in mass graves since 1869. Nowadays there are still people being buried on Hart Island. Americans that died in anonymity or poverty. Homeless people and poor immigrants, but also a lot of infants that died early. Until 2014 relatives couldn’t even visit Hart Island and there was little knowledge available about the graves on the island.

Burial records

By using the Hart Island Project Melinda Hunt, visual artist, wants to bring the history of the island to the public and tell the stories of the deceased. Since 2008 she’s been busy getting access to the burial records from the New York county by using the Freedom of Information Act 1.403. Melinda was searching for a way to make this information accessible online and gather stories about the deceased.


The question

Can we develop a website that tells the story of Hart Island and the deceased?

Travelling Cloud Museum

Because of the tone of voice she sought, Melinda Hunt intentionally chose for a foreign party for the realisation of Studio Airport was responsible for the design and realisation of the frontend. The backend of the website was developed by Webmine. The digital memorial that’s called “The Travelling Cloud Museum” tells, using words and images, the story of Hart Island and the 65.000 people that have been buried there since 1980.

The website was developed in a short time period using limited resources. Besides information about Hart Island the website also contains a map of the island with all plots and the burial records for each plot. For every deceased person there is a ‘clock of anonymity’ until someone lifts them out of anonymity by adding a story, poem, photo, video or audio recording to them. Using this method of visualisation and story telling The Hart Island Project wants to preserve information and stories about the deceased for future generations.

Cleanup and integration

Periodically the New York county releases new burial records. These contain information about every deceased person that’s buried on Hart Island. Name, age, date of death and location of their grave. Many volunteers insert this information into spreadsheets. At the start of the website there were nearly 1200 files of burial records. Webmine developed smart software to clean up all this information and integrate it in one database. New spreadsheets can automatically get added into the website.

Interactive view of the HartIsland map
The website contains an interactive map of the island with all plots and the burial records per plot.
Detailed overview of a burial record. With an augmented reality example contains information on more than 65000 deceased people.

Award winner

The website of The Hart Island Project brings the other side of the American dream and the individualism in American society into view in an extraordinary way. The project got a lot of attention worldwide and won some international awards.

In 2015 got an honourable mention in the category ‘activist’ at the prestigious Webby Awards. The website also won silver in the category ‘Information Site’ at the European Design Awards that year. The publicity that Melinda Hunt’s foundation brought to the until then unknown story of Hart Island didn’t stay unnoticed in the press either.

"The website received an honourable mention at the prestigious Webby Awards."

The technology

The website of The Hart Island Project is not only beautifully designed, its also technically put together in a smart way. Robust, scaleable, and with automatised import functions.

Smart import function

Entering burial records into Excel spreadsheets by many volunteers is sensitive to errors. By way of the import function Webmine developed the employees of The Hart Island Project are able to clean up the delivered information and import it into the database in a uniform way.

Scaleable is developed using Ruby on Rails and PostgreSQL and hosted by Heroku, an innovative and scaleable cloud platform. The required server capacity is dynamically managed which allows the website to quickly respond to big amounts of simultaneous visitors.


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